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Tyler Deaton: If he wants to be re-elected, Trump should leave Mueller alone

By TYLER DEATON For the Monitor

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

President Donald J. Trump won New Hampshire’s 2016 presidential primary, beating his nearest opponent, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, by nearly 20 points. He then defied all odds and went on to win the general election, although he narrowly lost New Hampshire and lost the popular vote nationally.

But on the ground in New Hampshire today, things are not looking so rosy for the president ahead of 2020. Setting aside that prohibitive front-runners don’t always pull off easy wins in the Granite State (just ask former President George H.W. Bush), the University of New Hampshire Granite State polling shows that Trump is not a lock to win the GOP primary here – and that’s well before any challenger even begins campaigning.

In its survey last month, UNH found that “just over half” of Republicans plan to vote for Trump in the primary. Only 55 percent of Republican primary voters are committed to Trump. Those are pretty astonishing numbers, although the survey also suggests Kasich is not the strongest candidate to take on Trump. They speak to dissatisfaction with Trump that could lead to the kind of surprise challenge that Bush 41 faced from Pat Buchanan in 1992.

Trump is losing the Republicans who were skeptical of him in 2016 but were willing to give him a chance. Somewhere between Trump loyalists and Never-Trumpers, this large bloc of GOP voters hoped that Trump would move past his campaign antics and become presidential. Trump has alienated many of these voters, despite a strong economy and his success in appointing conservative judges.

If Trump has any chance of re-election, he should quit having daily meltdowns about the Robert Mueller probe and give his full attention to issues that New Hampshire voters care about, like the opioid crisis. If the president fires anyone else involved in the special counsel’s investigation, he risks losing the GOP nomination in New Hampshire in 2020, among all the other legal and political risks he would suffer.

At the moment, thanks in part to Rudy Giuliani inserting himself into the president’s legal team, we’re back in a place where cable news is dominated by wall-to-wall coverage of the Mueller probe. This means the president is focused on it, too. He and many of his most devout supporters remain convinced the probe is about taking him down, when, in fact, he is explicitly not its target, and so far, it has ensnared a bunch of crooked Washington, D.C., lobbyists and more than 20 actual Russian spies and propagandists. Among the indicted you’ll find the brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman and Trump’s own campaign manager.

Thus far, Mueller’s probe has helped expose the corruption and the inner workings of “the swamp” that Trump campaigned against. Most Republican voters appear willing to believe the president had no idea about the crimes at least three of his own staffers have pleaded guilty to committing. So why continue drawing attention to them? It only serves to highlight Trump’s failure to keep corruption, quid pro quo, and criminal sycophants out of his own campaign team and administration.

Almost daily, the press reports rumors that the president or his allies in Congress are going to move against Mueller, or Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or even his boss and Trump’s own appointee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. This does not help the president. It makes him look weak. Contrary to the tough-guy image that 35 percent of New Hampshire’s 2016 GOP primary voters rallied to, all of this whining makes him look like a coward with something to hide, like he can’t take the heat.

This is compounded when the president looks like he’s bailing on campaign promises. How do you drain the swamp if you’re constantly weighing firing the guy who’s been the most effective at draining it?

The president has not delivered on either of his two most significant campaign promises to New Hampshire Republicans. In 2015 and 2016, we heard nonstop from Trump about two things: drugs and the wall.

Heading into 2020, there is no wall. For my fellow Republicans who thought this was a good idea, let’s take stock. President Trump has made zero progress toward his big, beautiful wall, and any money he has tried to spend on it has come from American taxpayers – not Mexico. I count this as a positive, but many of Trump’s diehard supporters must be discouraged by his newfound focus on the border between South Korea and North Korea rather than our own Southern border.

And New Hampshire is still suffering from an unmitigated public health crisis with very little help from the federal government. This past March, more than a year after taking office, Trump took a break from railing against Mueller and his own DOJ to finally announce a drug policy, the crux of which is higher criminal penalties for drug users, including the death penalty for drug dealers. He has named authoritarian Singapore, where people are caned for spitting gum, as a model for solving our crisis. This is not exactly in the spirit of our motto “Live Free or Die.”

Trump has put Kellyanne Conway – a pollster – in charge of White House drug policy, and he named a 24-year-old campaign grunt to lead the national drug policy office. I assure you Singapore has not put pollsters and campaign hacks in charge of their drug oversight. Manifestly, these are not the actions of someone who takes the drug crisis seriously and is likely to deliver any good results.

If Republican leaders in New Hampshire still want to help this administration, they’ll advise Trump to leave Mueller alone. Fiddling with convention delegate rules will not save him in the primary. He needs to tamp down on the media circus surrounding the special counsel, which politically energizes the left. Democrats could convert that energy into a wave election this November and a White House victory in 2020.

If Trump continues going after Mueller, his humiliation in the next primary – whether he loses or sees a rival Republican candidate outperform expectations – will become far more likely. Even if Republicans like Trump’s policies, they might cast a protest vote against someone they perceive as whiny, self-pitying, self-serving, incompetent or negligent. After all, these are the marks of stereotypical D.C. politicians, not the outsiders or mavericks New Hampshire tends to support.

(Tyler Deaton of Concord is a Republican activist and former secretary of the New Hampshire Young Republicans.)

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